THIMPHU, April 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the
past three years, Passang Tshering and his team of over 1,000
volunteers have cleaned up more than 60 public toilets and built
temporary bathrooms at a dozen events in Bhutan.
Passang decided to take matters into his own hands after
spotting a huge gap in sanitation provision in the tiny
Himalayan state, launching the Bhutan Toilet Organization in
“Everybody seemed to complain about toilets everywhere, but
there was no governing body to listen and find solutions,” he
told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The goal of Passang and his young team is to rid the country
of the practice of open defecation. “It is not even seen as a
problem,” said the former computer teacher.
Traditionally, Bhutanese families built toilets on the first
floor of their dwellings, with a pig sty underneath so that the
human waste could serve as fodder.
People would use leaves, sticks and stones to clean up after
themselves, while flushing was rare due to a lack of piped
Modern toilets have now become popular in cities and towns.
But with the majority of Bhutanese people still living in remote
hamlets, poor sanitation remains a major issue in large parts of
Reports of typhoid cases due to water contamination are
common during the monsoon that runs from May through September.
According to records from the health ministry, nearly 20,000
children under five are treated for diarrhoeal disease annually.
Other health problems exacerbated by a lack of sanitation
and hygiene include skin infections, conjunctivitis, dengue and
However, in the past few years, deaths linked to diarrhoeal
disease in young children have dropped significantly.
Bhutan managed to achieve a global goal to reduce the
mortality rate of under-fives by two thirds between 1990 and
2015, partly thanks to improvements in drinking water and
Still, experts say more progress is needed on raising public
awareness and providing clean drinking water, reliable water
supplies and proper sanitation facilities, especially in rural
The government is working with U.N. agencies and
international aid groups to educate villagers in how to pursue
and maintain better health and hygiene.
Meanwhile, motivated individuals like Passang are changing
mindsets too. Since launching a “Clean Toilets for All” campaign
online in November 2014, he has created a vibrant community of
sanitation activists, including young student volunteers and
The group plans to build toilet facilities along highways
and upgrade existing public toilets, ensuring they are friendly
to women and people with disabilities.
The volunteers also set up portable toilets at public
events, and are lobbying for mandatory toilets in parks,
low-income housing estates, construction sites, garages and bus
“We used to openly defecate when I visited my village,”
recalled 15-year-old Tandin Zam, who is glad a toilet has now
been built at her family home in Paro, some 70 km from the
capital Thimphu where she lives.
Infectious diseases linked to water and sanitation account
for almost 30 percent of health problems in remote areas. That
is why the health ministry is backing a nationwide campaign to
build toilets in every locality, funded by international
The proportion of Bhutan’s population with access to
improved sanitation now stands at 70 percent, up from 58 percent
“My clean modern toilet is the best thing that has happened
in my lifetime,” said 72-year-old Jigme Choden of Thorshong
Gonpa village in Mongar, one of Bhutan’s fastest-developing
Communities are supposed to maintain their own facilities,
but illiteracy, the mountainous terrain and lack of water
connectivity have often led to improper usage.
Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization who
visited Bhutan four years ago, said schools in the South Asian
nation lacked adequate lavatories.
“The teachers had nice toilets but the facilities for the
student were in a bad condition,” he told the Thomson Reuters
Foundation. “Bhutan needs to promote improvement in design of
toilets and training for cleaners.”
The government should also work with the private sector to
install toilets at tourist sites, he added.
The Buddhist kingdom has a number of important festivals
where thousands of locals and foreigners flock to ancient
fortresses and monasteries - and the shortage of toilets at
these locations has always been a concern.
Where there are toilets, they do not have enough staff to
keep them clean, said Passang. But when bathrooms are modern and
in good condition, people show more respect, he added.
“They contribute their share by flushing, and ensuring their
footprints are not left behind on the tiles,” he said. “To make
a complete change in the toilet habits of our people, we must
give them great toilets.”
His organisation plans to train cleaners and assign people
to man public toilets.
It has set up “Toilet Clubs” in around 10 colleges to manage
sanitation facilities, while universities have decided to
observe Oct. 8 as University Toilet Day each year.
The group is also keen to tackle issues relating to sewage
and wastewater management, as well as the pollution of river and
“We want to ensure that no sewer flows into the stream or
river system, and we will also push for mandatory connections to
the main sewer system,” said Passang.
(Reporting by Saraswati Sundas; editing by Megan Rowling.
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